Climbers and Climate Change: Trevor Bloom

Did you know the AAC supports cutting-edge scientific research? Through the Research Grant program, we provide funding to multiple researchers across the country every year. The scope of work our Researchers conduct is broad, but a common thread among many of them is investigating the effects of climate change. We've asked several of these Researchers to sit down and chat with us about climate change, their research and their climbing. 

AAC member Trevor Bloom recently earned his Masters of Science at Western Washington University in the Department of Biology. Trevor’s research is focused on quantifying the consequences of climate change and wildfire in high-elevation ecosystems. To do so, he conducted a field survey of the alpine wildflower “Spotted Saxifrage” (Saxifraga austromontana) where he and his climbing partner crossed the Rocky Mountains from New Mexico to British Columbia. Jonathan Oulton, AAC member and geologist, spoke with Trevor to find out more:

Q&A with Trevor Bloom

Oulton: Why is your research important to climbers and non-scientists?

Bloom: In my line of research, the consequences of climate change are very visible. Perhaps the most evident change is the recession and loss of glaciers throughout the central and northern Rocky Mountains. As these glaciers shrink each year less meltwater becomes available down-stream. As this happens, we’re seeing some of the largest wildfire years on record. Uncharacteristically high wildfire activity has increased 6-fold since 1970. People are directly affected by these wildfires through loss of natural resources, destruction of homes, health issues and increased risk to firefighters. We’re losing a lot of the diversity of life that is in the alpine.

Trevor Bloom (right) and partner Matt Kneipp (left) on the summit of the Grant Teton during field work (2015)

I observe how populations of a wildflower, the Spotted Saxifrage, change over time as a result of warming temperatures, changing climate and increasing fire frequency in the alpine. The evidence from the research is conclusive: wildfires are having devastating, potentially irreparable consequences on certain species in the alpine. As once relatively rare fire events become more and more frequent at high-elevation, unique alpine organisms face habitat loss and possible extinction. Species that exist nowhere else in the world may be lost forever!

Oulton: What is the most striking impact of climate change you've observed in the alpine?

Bloom: Entire landscapes have been altered by wildfires in the alpine. Most people don’t think that fire can propagate through the alpine, but once a wildfire reaches the tree line, it spreads like… well, like wildfire!

Fire in the alpine at the Bob Marshall Wilderness Compex, MT in 2012 

Also, the changes taking place in Glacier National Park completely blew me away. When the park was established in 1910 there were about 150 active glaciers, now there are fewer than 25, and may be zero before 2050. Once those glaciers are gone we can’t get them back, and we’re already beginning to see the consequences through increased summer drought and huge wildfires.

Oulton: Looking forward, what do you foresee as the most significant challenges to addressing the issues of climate change?

Bloom: We need to take climate change seriously as individuals and as a nation. A tremendous part of that is being active in the political process so that our elected officials make positive climate policy decisions. The problem right now is that the new administration’s cabinet is being stuffed full of climate change deniers (not even skeptics!). This is very scary because climate change deniers comprise a tremendously small portion (<2%) of the scientific community. Many of these politicians have a long history of combating environmentally friendly policies.

It is critical to convince policy makers that this issue is important to us, to our country and to our world! The vast majority of the scientific community agrees that human actions are a driver for climate change. Unless policies are put in place, companies and individuals will continue to make environmentally insensitive business and lifestyle decisions that are convenient, but detrimental long term.

Oulton: A common sentiment is that "the actions of an individual can't influence an issue as massive as climate change." This attitude is dangerous, as it can lead to complacency. What actions can an individual take to have a positive, real influence on climate change?

Bloom: First and foremost, we as individuals need to be informed and make informed decisions through voting and consumption choices. Your dollar goes a long way and your vote goes a long way. I think many people struggle with staying up to date on contemporary issues. A great way to do this is to join conservation organizations at all levels of policy. There is a litany of organizations from the local to the federal level that do the research regarding ongoing policy decisions and will offer great suggestions on how you as an individual can help out. Open their emails! Sign those petitions! Send those letters to your congressmen and women! Call them up on the phone! Show them you care! Stay up to date on contemporary issues, especially regarding climate change and public resource management.

A great example of this is the Outdoor Alliance. They regularly send out emails that provide information on policies that will threaten public land access/preservation at the federal level. Right now our access to climbing on state and federal land may be highly compromised! I’m willing to bet that there if you’re reading this, there is a local conservation group near your home that you can get involved in.

Lastly, be a personal steward to alpine environments. Stay on designated trails, respect closures, don’t pick the flowers or stomp on the tundra; these plants may be a hundred years old and fragile. Basically, respect Leave No Trace principles. If you allow these themes to guide your actions you’ll be taking personal measures to help preserve our beloved alpine. Share the outdoors and your values with others, especially the youth, so they too can make good decisions that benefit our environment. There is something so freeing about being in the mountains, but we must recognize it as a privilege that must be protected through good stewardship and political activism.

The beautiful Spotted Saxifrage (Saxifraga austromontana). Photo by Trevor Bloom

Oulton: All good advice! You're the creator of the "Climb-It Change" website and campaign. Tell us a little bit about it and your upcoming documentary.

Bloom: I’ve been working as a biologist for about 8 years now, which has involved writing peer-reviewed publications, discovering new species and generally investigating natural phenomena. However, I don’t feel like the science I’ve been doing has been communicated well with the general public, which is a critical component in preserving these species and places that I am very passionate about. The intention of the Climb-It Change documentary and blog is to present climate science and research in an approachable manner, to encourage people to get outside, experience nature first hand, and to help preserve our natural resources in a time of political peril.

The documentary follows my climbing partner, Matt Kneipp, and I as we traverse the entire Rocky Mountain Chain, sampling 76 peaks, rock climbing in six states and two Canadian Provinces, all while conducting field research on the Spotted Saxifrage wildflower that we detailed earlier in this interview. The documentary’s core purpose is to spread awareness about the climate change and increase in wildfire frequency that is happening in alpine environments. It is an adventure story and a method to educate a broader audience about the consequences of climate change in the alpine! So stoked. We expect a first release of the film in Bellingham, WA on Earth Day (4/22/17), followed by an internet release.

Oulton: We’re looking forward to seeing it! Thanks for chatting with us Trevor, good luck with the rest of your research and graduate program!

The Spotted Saxifrage in its high-alpine home. Photo by Trevor Bloom during his 2015 field season.